The radical potential of local government


Many people think local government is mostly just about fixing potholes and building playgrounds. But as Greens councillor for Brisbane Jonathan Sriranganathan explains, deep and lasting positive change comes from the bottom up – and that means we should all be seizing greater influence over the workings of local government.

By Jonathan Sriranganathan

It’s no accident that so many people think local government is mostly just about fixing potholes and building playgrounds.

Power-holders find it convenient to perpetuate the narrative that councils are merely local service providers with limited political relevance, because it helps justify anti-democratic moves to take more power away from local communities, while reducing public scrutiny of the many big, significant decisions that local governments do make.

But if we want to transform our world for the better, we need to grapple more directly with the role local government plays in society, and remind ourselves that deep, lasting, positive change comes from the bottom up.

When trying to understand a council’s political significance, people often focus too much on the hard physical stuff that councils build: the road upgrades, the bridges, the playgrounds, the sports facilities. But it’s a council’s ability to shift narratives and steer public discourse that we should pay most attention to.

In a country where so many people are so cynical of and disengaged from government decision-making, and where the major political parties have such shallow connections to wider society, politicians often have a hard time working out what it is that the voters in their electorates actually want.

Federal and state ministers and MPs know that the views of the people who proactively contact them via email or social media may not necessarily be reflective of wider public sentiment, so in the absence of more robust and reliable participatory democratic processes, they’re continually second-guessing what ‘the community’ really thinks.

In this context, the views of local government (both public statements from entire councils, and private conversations with individual mayors and councillors) are – rightly or wrongly – frequently treated as a reliable proxy for the views of people living in that city or region. If a local council says it supports new coal mines, or wants more police on the beat, that’s often understood by higher levels of government as being representative of the views of the majority of residents who live in that area, even if the councillors never actually asked the residents themselves.

So the views of local councils and individual councillors can have a large but under-recognised impact on higher-level government decision-making.

Councils can also shape a community’s priorities, values and norms through funding and support for certain kinds of cultural events, rituals and institutions, and by elevating and celebrating some ideas and issues while marginalising others. For example, a council’s decision to support Invasion Day protests instead of Australia Day celebrations, or to declare itself as a welcome hub for refugees, or to introduce gender-neutral bathrooms, can have wide-reaching flow-on effects in that community, and sometimes beyond.

So local governments exert upward influence on higher levels of government, but also downward and lateral cultural influence over the people they supposedly represent.

On top of all that, most councils also wield more direct power over our communities than we might ordinarily recognise.

Our local environments influence almost every aspect of our lives. Seemingly mundane decisions about urban planning rules, transport network investment, small business regulation and public space management end up dictating how we move around, who we interact with, what kinds of spaces we live and work in, what we do for leisure, and how our society adapts to major challenges like global warming or a virus outbreak.

We are shaped by our built environments, but most of us have comparatively little power to shape those environments in turn. We don’t usually have a meaningful say over urban planning or transport policy, and we certainly don’t get a say in whether council funds are used to plant more trees or to spread more bitumen.

So many of the problems our society is grappling with – from social isolation to rising transport costs to fossil fuel energy dependence – come down to local council decisions and priorities.

Whether we’re talking about climate action, housing justice or creating a different, better, more democratic form of collective governance, local councils have a critical role to play. But most of us don’t even know the names of our local councillors, and we rarely bother trying to scrutinise or influence the decisions they’re making.

Right now, we’re living through a period of great change and potential. Many of us are trying to work out how best to direct our energy, and where the viable openings are to help create a better world. Where are the pressure points and fulcrums that can enable a positive, radical cultural transformation while applying upward pressure on state and federal governments?

Perhaps seizing greater influence over the workings of local governments is a crucial puzzle piece that too many of us have been overlooking…

Jonathan Sriranganathan is a Queensland Greens councillor for the Brisbane City Council, representing the Gabba Ward.

This article was adapted from a longer piece that was originally written with a specific focus on Brisbane City Council. You can find that piece at this link.

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